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Not Just (or even?) For the Poor

II recently picked up the Church of England’s (CofE) 1986 report on the welfare state, Not Just For the Poor. It’s only 138 pages, so it has to be relatively brief (my own book on welfare for disabled people) but even then I found it’s theology to be very light – some nine pages of one chapter, which assumes rather than particularly demonstrates that Christians should care for the (non-Christian) poor. I can read it and agree with what it is saying, but that is because I have studied the issue, not because I feel that the report adequately covers what the Bible says. Anyone disagreeing with their stance would, I think, easily continue to hold that belief because they wouldn’t find enough theology to challenge it.

Nevertheless, they do say some good things. They point out that humans were created inherently social, and live in social structures and relationships; consequently “the question for Christians is not primarily concerned with whether we have an obligation to consider our life in the wider social world context, but how we do it” (pg16, my emphasis). I.e., Christians shouldn’t be asking whether we should engage in our neighbourhoods, country and politics, but how we should do so. We are “members of society” and “citizens with political obligations” (Pg 17).

In accord with the UN human rights, which speaks of the goal of human rights being “the free and full development of [a person’s] personality”, the CofE says that “we have a duty to respect and enable each person’s development and opportunity for personal growth” (pg16). The CofE is similarly in agreement with the UN that the development of human rights is not just the responsibility of the government, but also of citizens, as “every individual and every organ of society… shall strive... to secure their universal and effective recognition” (UN) and “we carry obligations one for another” (CofE, pg 19).

The CofE goes on to give a brief comment on the Old Testament commitment to the poor, and to note that, “The early Christian Church accepted the Old Testament as Scripture. The coming of Jesus and the establishment of the kingdom of God through his ministry represented the fulfilment of the promises of the law and prophets… Thus it is not surprising to see find, in its own context, the early Church continuing to see compassionate response to the poor as an obligation on the faithful” (pg24).

The writers of the report also point out that ‘love’ is not enough if that love is not defined to include justice. It is not enough to mete out charity to the poor; that does not end injustice nor give people dignity and freedom. Christians are also required to strive for justice in society and an end therefore of poverty and of extremes of wealth. This is an argument I have been considering for some time, since my reading of the prophets of the Old Testament made clear God’s concern not just for the alleviation of poverty that occurs but even more importantly the prevention of the injustice in the first place. “Extremes of wealth and poverty are a consequence of sin, and witness to the conscious or unconscious capacity for injustice of the rich and powerful” (pg 27).

The Kingdom of God is not another term for the church. God’s kingdom is about restoration – “undoing and overcoming the corrupting effects of evil” (pg27) – and transformation. It is the new rule of God, the liberating experience of full forgiveness, and a new, richer and far more costly understanding of love.

But God’s Kingdom is also challenged by the rulers and authorities – the rich and powerful – of this world. God’s kingdom challenges wealth, inequality and uneven distribution of those things that make life possible or worthwhile. If God’s church is not upsetting the government, the rich, the business owners and directors, the decision makers, the influencers then God’s church is failing.

The rulers in Jesus’ day saw Jesus as “a fundamental threat to [their] power and values” (pg 28). I see no such threat today. Instead, the church is an irrelevance; out-of-date, outmoded, unwanted and unneeded; unable to challenge society on human sexuality, promiscuity and chastity because it utterly fails to challenge society on greed, injustice and selfishness. We have made ourselves nothing more than a buzzing gnat, mildly annoying but easily ignored and painful only for the briefest time in the smallest of areas.

The point of the CofE report was that a Welfare State is not just for the poor, but for the whole of society.

My fear is that today the CofE is rarely even for the poor at all.

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